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As “Samurai Spy” concluded I was aware of two things.  First, it was without a doubt one of the most visually arresting black and white movies ever made.  Second, I never had the slightest inkling as to what was happening or what was at stake for its entire 100 minute run time.

“Spy” was made by Masahiro Shinoda, who I can only assume was out to prove himself as bold stylist with this work.  It rejects the traditional, older forms of Japanese directing, that being stately and understated, and embraces all forms of radical techniques to ramp up his tale of double crossing, sword fighting samurais.  It’s openly violent and bloody, utilizes great moments of shadow play and selectively throws in slow motion to great effect.  I would bet no small amount of money that Tarantino studied this one intently.  Shinoda has master chops when it comes to crafting a mesmerizing looking film, but in the end his visually enthralling effort feels completely meaningless on many important levels, the most important being its impenetrable story.

On the back of DVD box, “Samurai Spy” has its plot neatly summarized in just a few sentences.  In retrospect the summation feels mostly accurate, but while watching “Spy” keeping track of its comings and goings ranks with advanced physics and brain surgery as things most people cannot do.  “Spy” begins with narration that attempts to fill us in on what’s happening at this point in Japanese history.  Wars are being fought, battles waged men killed, allegiances bound and broken, but mostly all this talk just serves to muddles things.  Its opening battle sequence is impressive in scale and execution, an instant attention getter, but at the same time we’re bombarded with information we can’t begin to process.  The central character, Sasuke, moves through the proceedings having one encounter after another, the importance of which can never be determined.  “Samurai Spy” would’ve been greatly served had it taken a more vague and enigmatic approach to its story.  As it is, Shinoda never lets up on the details and thus, what could’ve been an impressionistic, and maybe likable, haze becomes a jumble of names and places the viewer can never straighten out.  This type of turgid storytelling is prevalent in other Japanese films as well and it leaves one wondering if an unbreachable cultural gap exists on some level.

I want to recommend “Samurai Spy” regardless of its hardheaded story.  It’s too engaging to look at to dismiss out of hand.  A second viewing of it could perhaps lift the veil off of the story.  If not, the astonishing look of the piece is still there to appreciate.  Lovers of Japanese and/or samurai movies would be wise to seek it out.


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